English Premier League July 17, 2008

A second-class competition

Eighteen teams for a "Premier" competition is at least ten too many, and 20 is utter lunacy. One Twenty20 competition per summer is quite sufficient


For Kent the only route out of bankruptcy is to commission a vast hotel and sports complex at the far end of the beautiful St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury © Getty Images
 

Anyone who truly believed Twenty20 cricket would be the vehicle to drive English cricket into the 21st century clearly forgot one crucial factor - the reactionary gentlefolk of the England and Wales Cricket Board, who have not yet progressed from the 19th. Wednesday's unveiling of the English Premier League was a squib as damp as those that spluttered on the Lord's outfield at the opening of the 1999 World Cup. The vested interests in the shires have snuffed out the greatest opportunity for change that the English game has ever known.

For a fleeting moment last week, there was a chance to create something groundbreaking - a competition that could re-establish England as a pivot of world cricket. MCC's chief executive, Keith Bradshaw, and the Surrey chairman, David Stewart, certainly thought so. They envisaged a tournament comprising nine teams, 57 matches and 25 days, hosted by the Test-class grounds but inclusive of the talents from the lesser counties. It was radical, but with estimated profits of £47 million for the first year alone, it wasn't merely workable, it had the means to rival the IPL as the premier domestic tournament in world cricket.

Instead, by refusing even to countenance a condensation of the teams involved, the ECB board has wilfully condemned the English game to a lifetime of second-class status. Eighteen teams for a "Premier" competition is at least ten too many, and 20 is utter lunacy. One Twenty20 competition per summer is quite sufficient; two in quick succession - and involving nine-tenths of the same competitors - defies any semblance of logic.

And yet, you wouldn't believe any of that to judge from the self-congratulation of the county executives, who are tripping over each other to proclaim how "exciting" they find the new proposals - even Stewart, who was last week being accused of treachery, is now, all of a sudden, "delighted". Back in 2002, a whole year before the Twenty20 Cup was born (out of desperation, lest we forget), Wisden Cricketers' Almanack described county cricket as "a confederacy of mediocrity" in urgent need of reform. Six years on, that confederacy is alive and thriving, and the last chance for change has just been slogged out of the park.

The pity is that the counties - particularly the have-nots, paralysed by fear and loathing of their more marketable neighbours - have not only cooked their golden goose but neutered the gander as well. When Giles Clarke coined the term "EPL" at the beginning of the season, it was a deliberate choice of acronym. That is the moniker by which England's Premier League football competition is known throughout India, a tournament that is by far and away the most watched, supported and money-spinning on the planet. Now, India will never be rivalled as the most significant market in world cricket, but as football's EPL has demonstrated, quality has a habit of transcending culture.

England merely had to find a formula that maximised the country's numerous assets, and let market economics do the rest. Suffice to say they blew it.

Instead, and inevitably, all radical notions were mown down before any debate could get underway. Last Friday's leak of the Bradshaw-Stewart plan was no accident. As Jim Cumbes, the CEO of Lancashire (who supported the proposal) said while resigning his post as chairman of the county chief executives, the counties have been gripped by "panic and paranoia". Like a clique of nimby-ish parish councillors faced with the need to regenerate their rural way of life, they've buttressed the doors to the village hall, rather than risk an awkward meeting with the developers.

County cricket is proud to be a rural pastime, but that is both its greatest asset and its most fundamental flaw. Ironically the reigning Twenty20 champions, Kent, best epitomise the paradox. The timeless beauty of the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury is soon to be nothing more than a soothing memory, because the county has decided the only route out of bankruptcy is to commission a vast hotel and sports complex at the far end of the ground, and sell off a further portion of land to a housing estate.

 
 
The pity is that the counties - particularly the have-nots, paralysed by fear and loathing of their more marketable neighbours - have not only cooked their golden goose but neutered the gander as well. Like a clique of nimby-ish parish councillors faced with the need to regenerate their rural way of life, they've buttressed the doors to the village hall, rather than risk an awkward meeting with the developers
 

All over the country, the same development woes are being addressed - Taunton was a partial building site during the South Africa tour match earlier this month, while Worcestershire may need an entirely new home if it is to recover from the desperate floods at New Road in 2007. And yet, given Twenty20's unrivalled financial clout, a solution was there to be grasped. A prudent acceptance that some venues are quite simply more viable than others could have safeguarded the non-Test counties' income and enshrined their bucolic tranquility for evermore.

What would it have mattered if, as a result, the gap had been widened between the haves and have-nots? The likes of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire have been living on borrowed time (not to mention funds) for decades, and no one but a handful of county diehards would mourn any further loss of status. Besides, the cat's cradle of complications that is the ECB's constitution means that a modicum of compromise in the boardroom could have led to an enrichment of every level of the game from grassroots upwards.

At present, any official tournament must be open to all 18 first-class counties, and it requires a minimum of 30 votes to change that legislation. The idea would therefore have had to be sold to the minor counties as well, who in turn could have secured a life-changing cut of the profits. Instead, the plan was blindly trashed before it had been read, and so all there is left to do is pick the positives out of the measures that have been adopted.

To be fair, the EPL as it stands could yet prove a qualified success. England is certainly attractive to the players, for reasons that extend beyond the strength of the pound. With the exception of the Caribbean, hardly any big cricket takes place in June anywhere else in the world, so none of the participants would require a "window" to be created in their schedules. Also, the venues are so close to one another that the globetrotting players could take a break from airport departure lounges for the duration of their stay.

Most crucially of all, the English time zone (as football has discovered) is tailormade for the Indian market, with matches beginning at 9.30pm India time and ending shortly past midnight. Set against that, however, is the difficulty of persuading people to watch. The beauty of the IPL was the richness of the talent in each side - with only eight franchises to choose from, the best players were on show in each and every game.

In the English version, however, that talent will be stretched across 20 teams and two divisions, and even with three overseas players per squad, that adds up to a minimum of 60 big names. There are barely that number in the entire world game, and half of them will never actually get to feature in the premier division of the Premier League. When you consider that a salary cap is also being considered to further hinder the free market, the stage is being set for an awful lot of mediocrity.

But if that's the way the ECB want to play it, there's clearly no way to dissuade them. "Broadcasters in this country and in Asia are interested in county sides - they are not interested in made-up sides," was Clarke's explanation, which is a staggering misrepresentation of the facts of the IPL. The Rajasthan Royals may have begun as a list of names on a sheet of paper, but they went on to become an extension of the legend of Shane Warne. Ultimately it's the players that will make or break this tournament, assuming the administrators haven't broken it already.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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